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Have you been kind today?

Researchers believe we’re hard-wired to be nice. Still, selfishness often reigns. Could one Orange Line hero inspire others (that includes you) to do a good deed?

By Jason Beerman
November 8, 2009

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In January, Frank Sullivan was riding the Orange Line when the 54-year-old witnessed a robber punch a commuter in the face, snatch his iPod, and flee. Sullivan chased the perpetrator off the train, tackled him on a moving escalator, and detained him until police arrived. That’s the story. But here’s a dramatic twist: Sullivan almost lost his life in 1979 after he confronted misbehaving diners in a Chinatown restaurant, who then waited outside for him and shot him twice in the head, leaving him legally blind and hard of hearing. Here’s another: When he witnessed the iPod crime, Sullivan was reading Practice Random Acts of Kindness. And in that split second, he acted on his own rhetorical question: “How could I read that book and not put it into practice?”

Could it be that Frank Sullivan, kind as he is, is nothing special? That as a species we’re hard-wired to do good? We don’t always act that way, but researchers this decade have suggested that humans are naturally concerned about the welfare of others, we have an “altruistic gene,” and certain areas of the cerebral cortex of our brains mediate magnanimous behavior. President Obama has implored Americans to volunteer for public service -- asking that we heed “our better angels” -- and the financial crisis has become our test. In a time of great need, will we deliver?

The results so far are mixed. A survey in June said that many more people have offered financial help than have received it. Another in July reported that, despite tough times, more people volunteered in 2008 than 2007. Even on the Web, OperationNice.com has since July of last year had 1,800 readers sign on to the nice brigade. But in a survey released in August, the vast majority of respondents said that this year they have scaled back on civic participation, which includes volunteering efforts, in part because of the economic downturn.

Barbara Taylor, a historian at the University of East London and coauthor of the recently published book On Kindness, believes we can blame the economic crisis in part on selfishness. “An image of people as fundamentally selfish [took] hold of the popular imagination,” she explains. “What’s happening is that it’s become more obvious that selfishness bears a heavy price for society.” In this sense, she adds, the global recession has resuscitated the ideal of kindness.

I decide to track down Frank Sullivan, who’s a Boston Fire Department dispatcher. What, I wonder, spurs a single person to selflessness? What would it take to hatch and spread a kindness revival?

I meet Sullivan at Government Center in the late afternoon, and he immediately puts me at ease. He is in great shape and bears more than a passing resemblance to a younger Anthony Hopkins. His eye contact when we speak is intent. As I accompany Sullivan from City Hall to the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street to the Downtown Crossing subway station, he is stopped by an array of people he knows, and he converses with a wide smile.

Sullivan spots a trio poring over a map of the Freedom Trail and sidles up to them. “Italiano?” he guesses. They nod enthusiastically, and he starts, “Mi chiamo Franco,” and then he shows them the way. “I love stopping people that are looking at maps. I love it,” he says, after they shout “Grazie” in their wake. “I love helping people that are lost. It’s no big deal; it’s a kind deed, I feel great after I do it. It makes my day.”

“There’s nothing at all unusual or certainly not unnatural about people being kind,” says Samuel Bowles, an economist at the New Mexico-based Santa Fe Institute who has studied altruism. “It isn’t so much that people are acting kinder now -- they may be, they may not be, I don’t think there’s any evidence -- it’s that selfishness was in for the past decade or so in America.

“The strange thing, and maybe the random thing, is the random selfishness of the past decade,” Bowles adds. “It’s out of touch with what America is like and it’s out of touch with what we are beginning to find human nature is like.”

Sullivan’s kindness, then, should be lost in a sea of fellow do-gooders, and his story shouldn’t seem surprising. Of course he came to the aid of a stranger on the subway in January. Of course he started the PINCH (People in Neighborhoods Can Help) Foundation in 2002 to assist those in need where he lives in West Roxbury and beyond. Of course he’s the neighborhood Santa Claus every Christmas. Of course he serves as a constant example of benevolence to his wife and two daughters.

But alas, for better or for worse, Sullivan is special.

“When your newspaper takes the time to write about kindness, it’s going to give others pause -- not pause to think about Frank Sullivan -- but pause to look at the situation that you’re going to describe, the kind act that was done, my opinion on kindness,” he says. “If one person draws something out of it that sticks, or 100 draw something out of it that sticks, it would have been worth the effort.”

Jason Beerman is a freelance writer in Allston. One of his favorite good deeds is to assist cyclists who have suffered a flat tire or mechanical difficulty; Jason always carries extra tools and tire-changing gear on his own bike. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Meet your role models

These folks get their nice on every day.

Ami Chambers, 34

Cambridge

Associate marketing director at Digitas

“I’m from California, and people often are like, ‘You’re always smiling all the time,’ ‘You’re always happy all the time.’ I enjoy trying to keep everybody’s spirits up.” A former co-worker says of Chambers, “Her personality is consistently enthusiastic about everything all the time.” She makes weekly phone calls to friends who have moved away, never forgets a birthday, and carves out time to spend with friends and family, even if it means inconveniencing herself. Chambers began mentoring two teens seven years ago and continues to be friends with them today.

Selina Chow, 53

Brookline

Retired

“To volunteer is almost to be able to go back and revisit some aspects of my own upbringing that were difficult, and to make that a better condition for other people.” Inspired by her father, who arrived in Boston’s Chinatown as an immigrant, Chow focuses her good deeds on that neighborhood. She has taken local kids to baseball games and the Nutcracker, and she raises funds for the social-service efforts of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, where she was recently appointed president of the board.

Gregory Davis, 59

Roxbury

Family services manager at the Boston Housing Authority

“I had to help folks see that if I could make it, they could make it, and that there’s somebody that cares for them if they’re willing to take the effort and do the right thing.” Twenty-two years ago, after turning his own life around following a battle with substance abuse, Davis launched a Roxbury nonprofit to help others do the same. Called Metro Boston Alive, the group provides education and referrals to individuals and families affected by substance abuse and violence. He still finds time to run the charity (as a volunteer) despite holding down a full-time job.

Jack Stuart, 74

Canton

Retired printing salesman

“I enjoy volunteering. I really feel -- and I know this sounds corny -- but I really feel that I get much more out of it than I give into it.” Stuart spends each Wednesday in the neurology department at Children’s Hospital Boston going room to room comforting patients and their parents. On Fridays, he helps residents play bridge at The Boston Home, a residential facility in Dorchester for people with neurological diseases. Having lost both of his sons to neurological disorders, Stuart is able to direct his profound sense of empathy toward patients’ families.

Kathleen Gaskin-Holland, 63

Jamaica Plain

Owner and operator of a Jamaica Plain upholstery shop

“What I do today is what I was trained to do as a kid in Trinidad -- it’s what I saw my parents and my grandparents do -- always lending a helping hand to other people who needed help.” Gaskin-Holland, a gifted cook, always has a plate of West Indian food at the ready, be it for neighbors or workers at the Orange Line station across the street from her home. Additionally, she prepares and delivers food to a group home in Waltham where her autistic son resides. She is well known in her neighborhood for her small acts of generosity as well as for her vivacity: She is a fixture at Boston’s Caribbean Carnival, dancing in the streets to the music.

Thelma Burns, 73

Dorchester

Retired director of the Metco program for Belmont Public Schools

“My telephone rings all the time. Although I’m retired, I’ve got students calling me. . . . They remember me. They gave me a hard time in school, but now they think so much of me.” Burns helps those in need with services such as fuel assistance and after-school care in her role as board chairwoman of Action for Boston Community Development’s Dorchester neighborhood service center. She is also a newly converted Facebook user, on which she has been able to reconnect with many former students whose lives she has touched over the years.

(Illustration by Ryan Snook)
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